Computers, People: Why can’t we just, well, talk?

Ever go to France with a guidebook and French-English dictionary and try to have a conversation with a native? (I’m assuming that you are a native English speaker and know little or no French).  “Why do they talk so fast?” 🙂

While it may be possible to order a meal or get directions, it’s impossible to have a real back and forth conversation.  Very little information can be exchanged in “real time”.  Discussion?  Impossible.  Every time they say something (even if you understand it) you have to stumble around looking stuff up, etc. before you can respond. (Nodding & smiling often works!)

Discussion means back and forth flow.  What you say affects my response.  If there is more than a very brief time between responses, we get frustrated.  How about watching TV news when folks have to “go through the satellite links”?  Even that second or so is annoying and makes it difficult to exchange information.

We usually talk in “full-duplex” mode.  You and I can both talk and listen at the same time.  We can also react to each others facial expressions.  If you have to do the “over and out” walkie-talkie thing not much gets discussed.

However, I can send you a detailed recipe for baking an angel food cake,  Even if you are many miles away, and I send it by mail.  You will be able to bake it — if my recipe is good — if not, then disaster. (sorry, I meant 1 3/4 cups of SUGAR not SALT)

Precision gets very important when you can’t have a real time conversation.  Same with computers, where  conversation is not  possible.  Why?  The so-called “time scales” are radically different.  Here’s a way to visualize the problem.

Imagine that you are somehow transformed into the world of a computer’s CPU. (Central Processing Unit — That’s the part that does all of the calculating.)  The time to calculate is measured in  milloniths or billionths of a second.  Lets make that calculating time equal a second or so and adjust all of the others times.

You have a few pieces of data in your head that can be recalled instantly.  (registers in the CPU).  You also have information lying on your desk (L1 cache storage) that’s a couple of seconds away,  You also have a file cabinet (L2 cache) that takes a few seconds to access.  Possibly some files in the basement (L3 cache) that you can get to in a few minutes.  Hopefully, all of these are organized well enough that you don’t have to take too long finding what you want.

If what you want is not there, then maybe a trip to the library (RAM storage – Rapid Access Memory).  It will take you a few minutes to an hour, depending on distance, and how hard it is to find the information.

But, what if you need some input from a person?  You send out a request.  You won’t hear back for maybe 3 or 4 years.  (You could learn to be somewhat fluent in French in that time!)

My point is that the time scales between computers and humans are so different, that real time conversations with the CPU are impossible.  You have to communicate via recipes, called programs.  Else, the computer’s CPU will just be sitting around doing nothing almost all of the time.

Good recipes unleash all of the super fast (millions of calculations per second) computing power.  But if there are errors…?  Great line: “A modern laptop computer can make more mistakes in 1 second than 1000 tax accountants can in 100 years!”

What about those robots (at the museums) that talk to you?  Those programs are very complex and have massive lookup tables of responses.  There are programs to digitize your speech, sort out the essentials, find them in a massive dictionary, and compute a response from some recipes — like a very fancy FAQ.  Very difficult to do.  Impressive stuff.  There are even versions that work on an iPhone (e.g., SIRI).

Amazing? For sure, but realize that underneath it all is a bunch of recipes (programs) and computations by a totally passive (yes, dumb) piece of electronics that has all of the thinking power of a stone.



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